Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall continue to dismantle the NHL's elite. In combining to record a pair of goals, three assists and a +6 rating Tuesday night vs. Vancouver, the Oilers' dynamic trio appears poised to keep ball rolling.
That's no easy task, mind you. With a 7-0 record highlighting their stake as the league's best club, the Washington Capitals have traveled to Rexall Place, primed to battle the up-and-coming home side in what promises to be an entertaining matchup tomorrow evening.
WHEN WE'RE TOGETHER
Opting to forgo the team's optional skate, instead choosing to work out, both Nugent-Hopkins and Hall couldn't say enough about the line's success.
"It's awesome," RNH smiled. "They make things so much easier out there and they also make it a lot of fun, too. I feel like we complement each other with the way we play. It's been great and I'm really happy with the start we've had."
"It was a good game for our line, for sure," Hall added. "Our power-play is one thing that we probably could have improved on, but overall we had a great game. If we can duplicate that [each night], we're going to put some points on the board and we're going to be good for our team."
With only one game to play until Nugent-Hopkins' entry-level contract kicks in (or he's returned to the WHL's Red Deer Rebels), Hall isn't too concerned with management's upcoming decision.
"With Ryan coming in and playing the way he has and showing the wherewithal to deal with everything and do as well as he has, we don't want [our line] to break up anytime soon."
Nugent-Hopkins doesn't want it to either, but he's also playing the cautious side, not committing to an apartment or long-term living arrangements until he suits up for Friday's contest vs. the Colorado Avalanche.
"No I haven't," he said. "It's the same situation as the past couple days. I'm waiting, and tomorrow's the ninth game so we'll see what happens.
"I'm going to keep taking it a day at a time and a game at a time, and go into tomorrow's game trying to make a good impression."
"They've been good," Head Coach Tom Renney added. "They got out there against [Daniel and Henrik Sedin] a couple times in the third period to help close a game out by attacking, and that's what they did."
A CAPITAL IDEA
The decision about whether or not to keep Nugent-Hopkins will come under extreme circumstances. The Capitals' potent attack, highlighted by the ‘balls-to-the-wall' (as quoted by Taylor Hall) style of Alexander Ovechkin will test the 18-year-old rookie in a big way.
"It's going to be pretty cool to play against Ovechkin; I've been watching him for a long time," Nugent-Hopkins explained. "They're a team that has a lot of skill besides him, so it'll be great going up against them and a great challenge for us.
"[Ovechkin is] a really dynamic player and he always seems like he's working really hard out there, and he has a heck of a shot."
Indeed he does. Renney made note of that, too.
"I remember him crossing the red line at [Madison Square Garden in New York], letting a snapshot go, hitting the crossbar and Henrik Lundqvist didn't even move. I'm glad it hit the crossbar, because it might have gone through the net."
It's Exhibit A as to why Ovechkin is one of the league's most lethal snipers, and he'll certainly pose a risk to the Oilers' challengers tomorrow night. Not having played vs. Washington last year, however, Hall is eager to get his chance.
"I haven't played them yet; I was hurt last year but I've heard a lot of things about their panache, their finesse and their skill," he said. "I don't know if you could say it's going to be fun to play a team like that. It might be a little bit of a different game than we're used to.
"We're prepared for them and we know they're the hottest team in the NHL, and we know that they have so much skill and they can win a game purely on that. Everything knows the star-power that they have: Backstrom, Semin, Ovechkin, Green. We know that they're a good team.
"We're going to have to use our skill that we do have, but I think hard work and defensive play is what's going to take us to the top."
Renney agreed and is equally as excited to go up against the league's best, in what should be a real look into the season's most intense litmus test to date.
"We have to play good teams to know where we are and how far we think we've come; and maybe, to a degree, how far we have to go."
The Capitals can relate. Washington was in a rebuild mode not too long ago, and like Nugent-Hopkins and Hall, Ovechkin helped spark a turnaround.
"When you compare the Capitals and Oilers right now, the Capitals are in the US and here there's more attention with cameras all over the place," Ovechkin said. "It doesn't matter how you play, there's always going to be attention.
"It's a young team and they have experienced guys, too. They're good. They have a great goalie, too, in Khabibulin who's won a Stanley Cup."
Ovechkin leads his team with seven points in seven games, which has helped propel the Caps to a 7-0-0 record, the best start in club history.
"The guys have played together as a team," Head Coach Bruce Boudreau explained. "If there's any one thing, you look at the minutes that everybody's playing and the equality we have; we roll four lines pretty good and everyone's contributing, which is probably the main thing.
"[The Oilers’] young guys are pretty quick. They're good and Khabibulin is playing as good as I've seen him since his Tampa Bay days. When you've got a team that believes, it's a tough combination to beat so we know we've got our hands full."
Sam Gagner injured his ankle in yesterday's contest, but completed the game and is expected to play tomorrow vs. Washington: "It's a little sore, but that's to be expected." ... "I'm going to let the ankle rest up a bit and feel better tomorrow."
Ryan Whitney also went down late in last night's first period but, like Gagner, did return to finish the game. Whitney was not made available to the media, but was having an MRI done today and is questionable (highly so) for tomorrow's game. Renney does not believe it to be serious.
They're a good team. They won the NHL's Presidents' Trophy last season and came within a game of a Stanley Cup Championship.
They've earned respect as one of the league's elite, and perhaps that's why they're seen as a hated bunch in and around Oil Country. Following the Oilers' 20-minute morning skate, that much became clear.
"I don't know," Ryan Whitney laughed when asked about why the Canucks aren't liked in the Oilers locker room. "I think it has something to do with the Canucks being a really good team. Nobody really likes a good team. Everyone gets pissed off when we lose to these guys.
"They've got some guys that try to get under your skin, play hard and walk that edge out there. Obviously there's some rivalry between players that gets going, too. It's a team that you like beating because they win and they're a good team."
Head Coach Tom Renney, who spent two seasons as the Canucks bench boss from 1996-98, agreed with his team's assessment but understood the challenge the visitors present as the NHL's reigning Western Conference champions.
"They're a very good team; they're well put together, they play the game at a very high pace, I think they're well-coached and they make you bring your ‘A' game," he explained. "We need to get well-acquainted with ‘A' as much as we possibly can if we want to be considered one of those teams down the road."
Vancouver certainly brought that back on Oct. 15 when the Canucks escaped Rexall Place with a 4-3 triumph. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored three times to record a hatty, but it wasn't enough.
"Yeah," Renney deadpanned. "They've upped the anti a little bit with a couple additions since then, too.
"We don't like any of our opponents. If we do, we're playing the wrong game."
SINKING THE WHALE
Overcoming the odds this time around will require a dedicated game plan. Whitney, 28, was still rehabbing his hobbled ankle when the teams last met 10 days ago, but fully expects to see a hungry Canucks squad again tonight.
"I think it's all about getting pucks in and not letting them get so much speed in the neutral zone," he said. "If we can make them come 200 feet, it's tough for them to get speed going. We want to not turn the puck mover and we'll be in solid shape."
Indeed. The Oilers have allowed only 10 goals this season and are rolling into tonight's contest with a 2-0 shutout in the not-too-distant past. Spirits are high and the group has stepped up as a unit to dismantle some talented squads early in 2011-12.
"The D has been playing great," Whitney added. "Sutton's been great and Potter's been awesome. It's a good group here.
"It's obviously still a little bit of a struggle for me. When you come back, you battle with minor stuff that you haven't had to for some time. You're sore and it's tough to get the speed of the game down, but I feel pretty good. Considering I didn't play for pretty much a year, it's been really good."
Tom Gilbert has averaged 24:54 in ice-time this season, almost three minutes more than anyone else and four minutes higher than the next closest rearguard, Cam Barker, who's averaged 20:35 this season.
He, too, has seen an increase in the team's commitment to own-zone play.
"I think we're more responsible [this season]," he said. "We're playing better and it obviously helps that our goalies are playing phenomenal, so it's a combination of a couple things."
Gilbert also sees an incredible challenge on the evening's horizon.
"You've got to be aware when they're on the ice, but you've got to focus more on the way your team is going to play," he explained. "It's more of how we want to play. We've had a couple games that we've let get away, so we've just got to learn from that."
That's particularly important, considering the Oilers' record this season against Northwest Division counterparts is 0-4. With 26 more games to come, wins are imperative to help anchor a potential post-season berth.
"These are obviously huge games," Gilbert said. "Against your division, you need these points. It separates you from being on the top of the division to the bottom. We need a win tonight and that's our main focus."
38-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin gets the start in net tonight; his third straight call between the pipes.
With games against the Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues in the coming week, energy was high as the Oilers took to the ice this morning at Rexall Place.
And why wouldn't it be? The New York Rangers succumbed in a 2-0 shutout Saturday evening; Nikolai Khabibulin's 44th in his illustrious 15-year NHL career, propelling the Oilers' record to an above-.500, 3-2-2 mark.
Khabibulin stopped 19 in the win, upping his league-best numbers with an impressive 0.72 goals-against average and .969 save percentage (bested here by Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick with a .972 save percentage).
The 38-year-old netminder is pleased with his telling early-season numbers, but isn't overly concerned with league-wide stats and where he stacks up among his 'tending peers.
"I don't really think about it," Khabibulin said. "I go out every game, do what I'm supposed to do and do my best. It's nice to have a good start, but it's a long season and I've got to keep it going.
"It's too early to even talk about it. All I worry about is the next game."
Having allowed a mere 10 goals in 2011-12 as a group, Khabibulin was quick to credit his team's increased commitment to own-zone awareness.
"I think a big part is how we're playing as a team," he explained. "There's a lot more blocked shots and guys are working hard in front of the net, too.
"No, I haven't changed anything," he added about his preparation. "I've done the same thing for many years now, and I don't want to change too much because I don't want to scare my body with something new. It's a product of the team."
Khabibulin has only allowed three goals on 88 shots this season, lending credence to his pre-season declaration of a rebound campaign. Head Coach Tom Renney, who's optimistically believed in his goalie's renewed energy since camp opened on Sep. 16, isn't surprised with his veteran's strong start.
"To [Khabibulin's] credit, he's a pro and he was driven to come out this year and have the start that he's had," he said. "I don't think he's needed a push from anyone. He's a smart man, he's a good pro, he's a competitor and he in his own mind made it very clear that he was going to be better."
His admirable outings have not only impressed Renney, but teammates as well.
"They've been awesome," Sam Gagner said of Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk. "Both Dubey and Khabby are giving us a chance to win every night, and that's all you can ask from your goalies.
"Khabby made some big saves last game, including a couple breakaways. He came up really big for us. It's important to have good goaltending."
FAMILIAR FACES IN NEW PLACES
Gagner made his return to the lineup vs. New York alongside Magnus Paajarvi and Eric Belanger on right wing. The 22-year-old has skated at centre for several seasons, but did have success in this position during the 2007-08 season; he recorded 16 points in the team's remaining 18 games, pushing the Oilers to within three points of a post-season berth.
"I think there are different things you have to focus on [as a winger], especially in your own end. I tried to focus on moving my feet a lot; at centre you're able to keep your speed a little more coming through the middle. On the wing you've got to get going a little quicker.
"We have so much depth on this team that guys are going to be forced to play out of position sometimes. I'm willing to play wherever the coach wants to put me. I want to be ready for whatever's thrown my way.
"I want to continue to grow at that position."
Gagner, 5'11" and 195 pounds, is fully aware of the position's challenging request. But with competition across the lineup forcing the issue (and Linus Omark to the press box), it's a constant battle to maintain value in this heated, re-building NHL environment.
Like he usually does, Gagner is taking it all in stride.
"I'm just hoping to get better here. Everything else will fall into place when you that."
Magnus Paajarvi can relate to that all too well. The slick-handed 20-year-old is still without a goal through seven games (so too are Anton Lander and Linus Omark). It's not in the Swede's makeup to get down, especially since he's been stepping up as a leader on the puck's defensive side.
"That's what I want to be good at, too," Paajarvi said. "The team has been excellent this year; we've got a really good goals-against. It's better that you have really good defence and solid offence, rather than the other way around, because then you're going to lose games.
"The D have good gaps and we back-check as well. Once we get the offence going, we're going to be really dangerous. We've been taking points away so far and that's most important."
Paajarvi began the 2010-11 season having recorded three multiple-point games by the season's ninth contest, leveraging his totals to 2-4-6. Following that, however, he endured a 13-game stretch were he was unable to record a point.
It's all part of being a second-season student at the NHL level.
"I've had [pointless] streaks before, a lot longer than this," he laughed. "You've got to keep working, be patient and keep doing the things that you need to do, but not really get frustrated. It's going to come.
"When you do score a lot of goals and a lot of points, you don't think and everything happens. You've got to find that rhythm. It's good for the team and as long as it goes that way, I'm happy."
One thing's for sure: as the sophomore works his way through some early-season trials, he's got his coach's support in full view.
"Maggie's starting to drive the net more, and he's putting pucks on goal and following those shots to the net. It's close-quarters and you've got to go to the tough areas, and it's not like he doesn't want to."